The 2009 holiday season was a tough one for retail businesses. In November, their sales increased
just 1.8 percent over low 2008 numbers-failing to keep pace with
inflation. December was worse, with sales actually falling three tenths
of a percent from 2008.
But in more than a hundred communities across North America,
independent community-based businesses had a more positive story to
tell. A nationwide survey of more than 1,800 independent businesses by
the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
(ILSR) found them outperforming chain competitors. Most notably, the
survey found independent retailers in communities with active "Buy
Independent" or "Buy Local" campaigns reported an increase in holiday
sales three times stronger (up three percent) than those in cities
without such campaigns (up one percent).
Given the current inflation rate of 2.7 percent, the benefit of such
campaigns could mean the difference between success and failure for
many store owners. "Amid the worst downturn in more than 60 years,
independent businesses are succeeding by emphasizing their community
roots and local ownership," says Stacy Mitchell, who executed the
Jennifer Rockne directs the American Independent Business Alliance
(AMIBA), a nonprofit organization supporting 70 "Independent Business
Alliances" across North America. She concurs with Mitchell, saying
"When executed well, these campaigns are making a huge difference for
local businesses and their communities."
The increased interest in buying local isn't lost on store owners.
In a recent survey of its members, the Portland Independent Business
and Community Alliance in Maine found 84 percent of its member
businesses reported its "Buy Indie / Buy Local" campaign and related
activities had positively impacted their business-that number has
increased with each year.
Critics of "go
local" movements warn that buying local deprives people in the Global
South of jobs that could lift them out of poverty. But are
multinationals really helping?
The ILSR survey respondents hail from communities of widely varying
size, geography and political leanings, but share an important quality.
Like Portland, they gain support from AMIBA or the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
(BALLE) and engage in year-round, long-term community education that
goes beyond mere consumer choices to focus on local independent
Mitchell and Rockne view many "buy local" campaigns started by
government entities or chambers of commerce with some skepticism. "Many
are launched without long-term commitment and are motivated by desire
to boost city sales tax revenues, not concern for local entrepreneurs
or community character," warns Mitchell, who detailed the escalating
problem of "local washing" last year. The term describes campaigns by
some cities, chambers of commerce, and corporate chains to define a
"local" business as merely a nearby location without regard to the crucial distinction between local and corporate ownership.
Rockne questions whether such campaigns can yield measurable impact
and notes a key framing issue. "While we ask people to shift more of
their spending to local independents, consumer choices alone cannot
halt many of our destructive environmental, social and business
trends," he says. "We need to exercise our power as citizens as well."
Why? Countless chains benefit from tax loopholes, subsidies, federal handouts
and other preferential treatment that undermines fair competition and
handicaps community-based businesses. Both ILSR and AMIBA help citizens
to reverse such destructive government action and advance myriad
pro-local measures, from local purchasing and contracting preferences
to policies that promote neighborhood-scale building and prevent big
AMIBA is walking the talk of democratic action as one of four organizations to launch Free Speech for People, a coalition gathering support for a constitutional amendment to overrule Citizens United v FEC.
The recent Supreme Court ruling granted corporations the power to spend
unlimited company funds in efforts to elect or defeat judicial and
political candidates. While recognizing the primary threat to our
Constitution, indie business advocates also worry because, even prior
to this ruling, corporate chains had little trouble translating their
wealth into political favors such as those noted above.
AMIBA's presence in the coalition has helped curtail previously
routine media references to the Roberts Court as "pro-business" and has
created some surprisingly honest reporting in major business news
outlets. "High Court Wallops Small Business" was the title of a recent
Kiplinger's brief on the case.
While Rockne embraces this role, she focuses on the core mission of helping people to effectively execute local campaigns. She expects to see 100 Independent Business Alliances by year's end.
Mitchell believes the recession creates added opportunity.
"Recycling capital locally by spending and investing more with local
independents is powerful economic stimulus for communities,"
she notes. "As the evidence builds that Buy Independent and Buy Local
campaigns can actually shift consciousness and purchasing choices,
we're seeing interest and results grow even more rapidly."
Jeff Milchen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jeff is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, which hosts its second international gathering for advocates of community-based enterprise in Tampa April 8-11.
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